Michael Abels on Delivering a Frightfully Good Score for Jordan Peele's Horror Flick 'Us'

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Todd Robinson
Michael Abels

“Visit your local record shop to find out how you can be part of Hands Across America,” intones a cheery TV promo at the beginning of Jordan Peele’s terrifying new film Us, in theaters now. The reference to the 1986 charity event to help end homelessness sets up a major plot point and hints at the pivotal role composer Michael Abels’ post-modern score and a few well-placed pop tunes play in the film.

Abels, a symphonic composer recruited by Peele for his 2017 hit Get Out, says of the director, “he’s always challenging me to find different ways to scare the pants off people.” Us terror techniques included Japanese taiko drums, chime-like echoes, anxious violins and restless chorales. “He was channeling his inner Bernard Herrmann,” says Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing Mike Knobloch, whose Back Lot Music released the score on March 15.

Chatting from a car on his way to the film’s New York premiere March 19, Abels told Billboard Peele was interested in exploring ways music could reinforce the doppelgänger theme, based on the premise that we all have a dark side. Stars Lupita Nyong’o  and Winston Duke anchor the tale as parents who head  to Santa Cruz, Calif., for what they think will be a relaxing vacation with another couple, played by Elisabeth Moss and Timothy Heidecker. “We talked about the concept of duality, and things that could be juxtaposed in a context that you wouldn’t hear them in normally,” Abels says. “He said anything that was inspired by that thought would be intriguing to him.”

 Abels used an Eastern European instrument, the cimbalom, “that “makes kind of a twangy sound,” when its strings are hit with a mallet. “I paired that with the violin a lot, the result of experimenting with sounds that were very dissimilar.” It became the defining sound of Umbre, the evil twin of the teenage daughter. Abels composed his score for strings and percussion and recorded at Sony Pictures’ historic Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage, where in its previous incarnation as part of the MGM lot the music for Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz was recorded.

“It’s one of the most sonically amazing places on the planet,” says score mixer and recording engineer John Rodd. “Acoustically, it’s unique. It’s a large space, but through careful placement of microphones we were able to get an intimate, present sound, so you can hear the rosin of the violin bows.” The film was recorded and mixed in Dolby 7.1 surround, “fairly unusual for this budget of film,” Rodd adds.

A state-of-the-art stage was one of the resources Abels could draw on as a result of a sizable budget for Us. While Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, was made for just under $5 million, a $176 million worldwide haul made it a hit, boosting Us funding to $20 million.

Another special touch was the use of a 30-person choir, a third of them children. “Jordan heard children’s voices as being an important, chilling part of the score,” says Abels. One of Peele’s signature moves, the composer notes, is “taking something innocent and putting it in a context that makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck. We did that in number of instances, using music that by itself  would be sound sweet but combined with what’s onscreen, not so much.”

The vocal compositions culminate in a track called “Anthem,” from which many of the film’s musical motifs derive. “‘Anthem' was clearly a shot at a main title for the film, but a lot of my other demos, I don’t tell him what scene or situation inspires me. I want him to use it how it inspires him.”

As on Get Out, Abels began composing from the script. Based on their preliminary discussions, Abels came up with demo cues, handing them off blind to the editor, “and when he did a rough cut of the scenes as Jordan was shooting, I’d see where they dropped in some of that music in as a temporary score and that’s how I would learn which theme or music [Peele] was envisioning for different parts of the film.”

Some of the choices surprised him. In one scene, Dahlia, the evil counterpart to Moss’s society wife, sensually applies makeup to her hideously battered face staring back in the mirror. “Instead of the scary, dissonant music you hear through most of the movie, for this we used a very romantic, lush, old-Hollywood sort of theme,” Abels says. “Jordan’s placement is very unexpected. That’s part of his signature style, dark humor and surprises.”

 That humor is exemplified in a long battle scene at Moss’ waterfront mansion. As chaos unfolds, a running joke involving a voice-activated device named Ophelia facilitates some needle-drop gags. When Moss orders, “Ophelia, call the police!” the machine mildly responds, “Okay, play NWA ‘Fuck the Police’” then segues to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” The licensed track most extensively used is Oakland, Calif. duo Luniz’ 1995 hit “I Got 5 On It.” Other tunes Peele selected for the film include Janelle Monáe’s “I Like That” and, for the big closing, Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur.”

The song was initially selected for use in the film’s trailer, with editor John Cantú at Universal’s in-house marketing unit, Inside Job, doing a creepy remix that slowed the tempo and upped the chill. The trailer, released at Christmas,  got a huge response, including inquires as to how to get the remix, prompting Peele to include the song in the film. The movie  – uses the original version and a theatrical remix to which orchestral sounds were added to integrate it with Abels’ score. Both the theatrical and remixed versions (called the “Tethered Mix,” for the name given to the marauding human subspecies that terrorize in the film ) are included on the soundtrack. 

Another artist Abels riffed off of was Tchaikovsky, whose “Pas Des Deux” from The Nutcracker Suite was the inspiration for an epic end battle. “It’s not one of The Nutcracker’s more hummable tunes, but it is a very famous dance piece,” Abels explains. “Jordan started with that idea and I had to do some steps for an edit.”

While Abels considers his role “to be the musical voice of the director,” he says with Peele he takes it a step further: he’s the “in-house guy  who gets to do the evil take” on whatever music  Peele takes a fancy to. “Jordan picks the source music because he has deep musical knowledge and wonderful ideas about what he wants to use and how,” Abels says. “Then says to me, ‘Hey, how about if we do a really sunny ‘80s take on that? Or a horror take on this?’ Then I take it and run with it.”